Last week, I spent several days down in north Devon, helping my father shift part of a 14 ton pile of gravel. It wasn’t our only activity though. I also counted 80 marsh orchids in their meadow; saw my first Leworthy lizard (was it lost? Surely it’s far too soggy there for a sun-loving reptile?), visited Holsworthy Ales and tried their new honeyed golden ale, Bizzy Buzzy (very pleasant on a sunny day, despite the infantile name and label); and I even saw my first ever British kingfisher, which shot underneath me when I was standing on a small footbridge over the river Deer. Plus, this being the Etherington family, I also did a lot of eating, include a requisite cream tea.
Normally, when visiting my folks in that part of the world we go for a meal at The Castle Restaurant, Bude, over the Devon border, on the Cornish coast. But sadly it closed down in October 2013 after a six-year run. It’s a real shame, as it was one of the only places serving real food in that area of north Devon/Cornwall. It’s also a wider shame there aren’t more real food places in that area, as it’s got an interesting food heritage. For example, Stratton, just inland from Bude on the way back to Holsworthy, used to be one of England’s key saffron-growing centres.
The saffron grown there would have been used in, among other things, Cornish saffron cake. This is an enriched bread, something like a yeasted cousin to English tea loaf (aka tea bread), though dyed (slightly) with the distinctive orange-yellow of saffron. In ‘English Food’, Jane Grigson says, “Saffron has always been expensive, even during the Middle Ages when it was at the height of European popularity for flavouring dishes, and even more for the colour it gave them. People liked their food to look gay, so that saffron… was found in every prosperous household.”
While in ‘English Bread and Yeast Cookery’, Elizabeth David says, “Among the most costly of spices used in early English cooking, and one which has survived – that is in our true native cooking – almost solely in yeast cakes and buns, is saffron. Originally treated as a colouring rather than a flavouring agent, it was used lavishly in sauces and for almost any category of dish, whether fruit, flesh, fowl or fish, sweet cream or savoury stew, whenever it was felt that a fine yellow colour would be appropriate.” She said its use died out through the 19th century – except in the West Country for buns and saffron cake. She suggests that when WWII deprivation forced people to replace saffron with annatto, they came to realise the former “was a very great deal more than just a colouring agent.”
Saffron is the stigmas of Crocus sativus – Saffron crocus – which have to be harvested by hand. I imagine it’s backbreaking, slow work. The little pot I’ve got simply gives that frustratingly vague “Produce of more than one country”, which may mean India, Iran, Spain, Turkey, Morocco, Egypt, Spain, probably even China and perhaps even Greece, where the plant’s presumed wild ancestor (Crocus cartwrightianus) may have originated.
Grigson says, “It has been estimated it takes a quarter of a million flowers to produce one pound,” that is 454g. So if my little pot contained just 0.5g of stigmas, that’s still around 275 flowers (I think; maths isn’t my strong point). Sheesh. Or to look at it another way, if Waitrose Spanish saffron costs £3.99 for 0.4g, that’s £9.96 for 1g, for £9,975 for a kilo. The classic comparison is with gold, which at the time of writing costs about £24,000 per kilo (depending on carat).
Grigson also says the crocus was introduced to England in the 16th century and was still cultivated here until the practise died out at start of the 20th century. One enterprising grower did, however, start cultivating it in Essex again in 2001. His works out at £15 for 0.2g, or £75,000 a kilo. This is clearly a lot more than gold, but such high prices are a reflection the labour-intensiveness of a small scale operation in a first-world economy. I wonder if anyone grows it in Devon or Cornwall still? Or at least has Crocus sativus in their garden without realising the worth of its tiny red stigmas, despite how excruciatingly hard they are to extract.
For this recipe, I referred to the one in ‘English Food’ and another recipe from one of those little old-school ‘Favourite recipe’ books published by J Salmon Ltd (“Britain’s oldest post card and calendar publisher”). Despite the (somewhat haphazard) recipes, given with pounds and ounces only, and the cute watercolour wash illustrations, the books are a great repository of traditional British recipes. David also has a recipe, but I didn’t look at that till afterwards. In it she says one “valuable detail” she learned in her research was that “the little bits of saffron in the infusion which colours the cake are not strained out”. I hadn’t. They really help maintain the flavour, and just go to prove you didn’t use any old yellow colouring.
1 good pinch of saffron
A few tablespoons of boiling water
250g strong white bread flour
200g plain white flour
7g instant yeast, or 20g fresh
100g lard (or just use 200g butter)
1/2 t fine salt
60g caster sugar
1/2 t cinnamon
A few grates of fresh nutmeg
50g candied peel
1. In a small bowl, cover the saffron filaments with the boiling water and leave to infuse – for at least 5 hours, or overnight.
2. Make a sponge or pre-ferment by mixing 150g strong white flour, the yeast and the milk, warmed to about body temperature. Don’t agonise about this. If it’s cooler, it’ll simply ferment slower. Just don’t get it too hot.
3. Let the sponge ferment until it’s nice and frothy.
4. In another, large mixing bowl combine the other 100g strong white bread flour and the 200g plain flour.
5. Cut the fats into cubes, then rub into the flour until it resembles breadcrumbs, more or less.
6. Add the salt, the sugar and the spices to the fatty floury mixture.
7. Add the sponge along with the saffron and water to the floury mix.
8. Combine all the ingredients to form a dough. You want it moist; if it’s too dry, add a little more water or milk.
9. Give the dough a good knead, for 5 minutes or so, until it’s nice and smooth.
10. Stretch out the dough, add the dried fruit, then give it until gentle knead to distribute the fruit.
11. Form the dough into a ball and put back in the bowl, cleaned and oiled slightly.
12. Cover the bowl with a cloth or shower cap and leave to prove in a draught-free place until doubled in size. Time will vary depending on the temperature and the mood of your yeast.
13. Remove the dough and form it into a ball again, then rest this for another ten minutes or so.
14. Preheat your oven to 220C (200C fan oven).
15. Form the dough into a baton and place this in a greased loaf tin. Cover it and leave to prove again, until it’s risen again and the dough re-inflates slightly when you push a finger into it.
16. Bake for about 20 minutes, then turn the oven down 20 degrees and keep baking for another 30 minutes. Watch it doesn’t colour too much – if it looks like it’s going to burn, cover it with foil.
17. Once baked, take it out of the tin and leave it to cool completely on a wire rack. (Or if you don’t mind a bit of indigestion, eat it while it’s still warm. Bakers don’t recommend this as a loaf that’s still warm is effectively still baking.)
18. Serve at tea time, generously buttered. It’s nice for breakfast or elevenses too.
Anyway, having done all that, I also subsequently noticed that David gives recipes for Cornish saffron cake and a Devonshire cake, a “variation” that can be made with one of my favourite foodstuffs – clotted cream. So I really ought to do that next time, considering my folks’ place is actually in Devon, and Fran, the missus, is a Devonshire girl. Although my mother’s mother was from a Cornish family (the Olivers of St Minver), and I developed a strong love of Cornwall after several childhood holidays, so I suppose I’m allowed to feel torn.
A note on the flour
I’ve just bought some supplies from Stoates in Dorset. Or “Stoate & Son / Established since 1832” as it says on their site, though I’ll overlook the grammatical strangeness as they’re producing quality stone-ground products using a proportion of locally grown grain. The site also says, “We take great care in selecting our wheat much of which is sourced locally but is always blended with a proportion of Canadian wheat to achieve an end product with consistent baking and eating qualities.”I contacted Stoates about the specific blend and Michael Stoate got back to me saying “The mix at present is about 65% local UK grain (Paragon spring wheat) and 35% Kazakhstan high protein wheat. This is giving a protein content of about 12.50% – 13.00%.”
The Stoates white flours, being stone-ground and less heavily sieved retains more the bran than more industrially produced flours. It’s also not bleached. So it’s not so bright white, meaning my “white” loaves will never quite achieve that gleam like a Hollywood film star’s teeth. But they will be healthier and more wholesome.